Old Fish Tale

Tihomir set on the dock alone, fishing. It was late afternoon in spring; mosquitoes had not yet opened their season of carnage, and the flies were recent hatchlings. It was serene and his catch that day lay in a bucket. Not much. It was a long day of effortless nonexistence, he was dozing off, when the rod in his hands jumped and startled him. He grabbed onto it with renewed interest and balanced himself on the edge. The weight he felt pulling in the opposite direction was considerable. That was puzzling, for the biggest fish he’d ever captured or seen in the area was no more than a couple of pounds. The unexpected challenge stirred excitement in him. 

A lot of tugging and pulling ensued in the next ten minutes. Tihomir was tiring, his enthusiasm dissipated along with his strength and he was ready to give up when suddenly the resistance at the other end abated. He quickly rolled on the fishing line and with clumsiness and renewed strength pulled out of the water a magnificent fish!  It must have been at least 30 pounds; about four feet long and covered with brilliant colors. It wriggled its body frantically and pounded the dock with its tail, contorted and tried to get close to the edge and back in the water. He wasn’t going to let that happen when it dawned on him that the fish might succeed, unless he killed it.

Tihomir had never killed anything bigger than… – even the fish in his bucket died on their own. Neither was there anything within reach that he could kill such big fish with. Instinctively perhaps, but mostly hopelessly, he stood on the edge of the dock with his legs and arms spread out, creating a barrier, in case the fish tried to get by him. The dock had a concrete wall along one of its sides, about two feet high and theoretically, the fish could jump over it. If that was not an option, then he had better be good at catching the slippery creature, which displayed rows of rather long and sharp teeth. 

Then the dramatic scene took another turn. The fish suddenly stopped all that wiggling, inched its way to the wall and leaned on it. It looked at Tihomir with its left eye and it appeared that it even crossed its fins in some odd fashion; nobody in the world could explain to him how, but it did resemble something like that – the fish looked comfortable. Tihomir’s jaw, which began a downward journey at the sight of that, dropped to the lowest level possible when the fish spoke out.

“So, Tihomir, quite a catch, huh?”

He was numb and mute. The voice was that of a female fish – no, of a woman but coming from a fish. It must have also been a female fish; his head was abuzz while attempting to accommodate the facts of the event inside its cavity.

She continued:

“You have one wish. On the condition that you don’t tell anyone about me, this day, of where did your good fortune come from. And, of course, as is customary, you need to let me go.”

She smiled at that, displaying again her impressive dentures, looking quite amused, it seemed.

“But you can get back to the water by yourself, and I can’t stop you, even if I wanted to,” Tihomir replied quietly after he caught his breath.

She nodded.

“True. However, this is an age-old game. It has its rules and I abide by them. Let’s get to it: what is your wish?” 

Tihomir was still standing on the edge of the dock, with his back to the sea. Now he sat down, crossed his legs and looked very closely at her. Her skin had dried up quickly but the shimmer remained. The scales reflected the late sun. Her breathing and each movement of the fish body changed angles and illuminated what seemed as millions of pieces locked in a puzzle. The whole body was a display of unmatched spectral beauty, a symphony of visual extravaganza. She moved her head expressively while she talked, as a human would. The large round eyes even blinked. Tihomir couldn’t recall fish having eyelids. Maybe they did. When he was a boy he paid attention to every detail of the world, now he came here to forget about it. It was very strange indeed. Her gestures were human-like; her body was definitely that of a fish. The way she moved, best described as fluid, was strangely human.

“Were you a woman once?” he asked boldly.

Uncomfortable questions usually had people respond with a movement, or a shift. She stirred in her spot, as if sitting on a hard seat. Of course she was, on concrete.

“So, you are under a spell!” He suddenly added excitedly: “Like in fairy tales? A frog, an ugly duckling, a fish?” Then he hesitated and waved his arm undecidedly. “Do I need to,” and he gestured again, uncomfortably, pursing his lips, as for a kiss.

She stretched her fish neck to the side, moved the right fin to the front as if to stop him: “Don’t even think about it!”

He laughed a short, bemused laugh. She looked at him from the side.

“Observant, aren’t you? Yes, I was a woman once.”

“Were you pretty? Sorry….I mean, I’m asking because as a fish you are so beautiful.”

“Not very.” She was more comfortable now. “Tihomir, I understand that this is fascinating to you, but I haven’t got all day. Do you, or don’t you, have a wish?”

“What was your name? Or, what is your name now?” he continued.

“Larissa.”

“That is a beautiful name! I like feminine names for girls.” Indeed, Tihomir seemed to be enjoying the unusual conversation. He hadn’t spoken a word all day.

Larissa looked at him for a long while and said nothing.

“It would be untrue if I said that I had no wishes, but you caught me unprepared. I don’t know what to say,” he explained.

“You could have the world!” Larissa exclaimed, waving her short upper fin in what was meant to conjure a wide arch.

 “Could I?” He looked surprised.

“Well…in theory. However, unless you have an agenda – and I will tell you, bad agendas work out much better, good intentions always get muddled – anyway, unless you know what you want, with or without the world, you won’t get very far.” Now she seemed bored, as if she was truly wasting her time with him. “If you wanted to rule the world, imagine United Nations times ten, at the least. You won’t have enough time in a day to just hear them all complain of each other. If you want worldwide fame – you will have a public persona to support and while it grows you’ll be getting smaller and smaller. You may also need an army to protect you from your fans and you won’t be able to go anywhere freely. If you…- anyway, that was just an illustration. You know, you don’t have to make your wish, but you’ll die regretting it, I can assure you.” She stretched and it looked as if she was judging the distance to the sea and the best way to get there with least effort.

“What kind of wishes did other people ask for?” Tihomir asked. He might have been trying to buy time, but his questions, like him, appeared genuine.

Larissa looked at him for a long moment again, made a shrugging fish movement and replied off-handedly:

“Some practical, some typical, few unexpected…”

“Tell me more, please,“ he begged.

“An old man in Thailand asked for his wife’s health. He himself wasn’t well, but without a moment’s hesitation he asked for her to recover fully. A woman in Trinidad wanted a good husband for her widowed daughter. A girl in France asked for a little sister.  One man asked to go to Heaven when he died. Many asked for money.”

He nodded quietly. They both sat without words for a while. Then he said:

“Do you ever feel responsible for the wishes you’ve fulfilled?”

Larissa sighed. She tilted her head and looked at him seriously.

“Tihomir, I am a fish. A magical fish. I may talk like a woman, I used to be a woman, but I am now a fish. The world of human beings and the world of fish are very different.”

“Could you become a woman again?”

“No! Isn’t this strange enough? A talking fish, who used to be a woman, but became a fish, and then became a woman again? A definite no.” She shook her head while looking somewhere above his head. “It was lonely being a woman.”

“Are there many gold fish in the ocean?”

“There are many fish in the ocean.” 

Tihomir reached for a large plastic bottle with water, unscrewed the top and tilted his head to drink when he paused and looked at Larissa. He got to his feet, walked over to her and poured most of the water on her. It fell on her head and splashed all over her body spraying his feet. They both laughed, and she slapped her tail joyfully. He drank the rest of the water.

“I keep thinking of you as some kind of a mermaid,” he said sitting down again, close to her.

She laughed again, a boisterous, deep laugh. “I see!”

“I was in love once. She was married, older than me, and she sent me away. When I got married, I didn’t love my wife but was loyal to her. I respected her and she left me, angry because I never loved her. She married again, but I don’t think she is happy. I started fishing three years ago. I didn’t do it since I was a boy. Did anybody wish for love? They must have – people always want love.”

“If your wish is to fall in love, Tihomir, I must warn you: there are two options. First is that I choose a woman for you. The second is that you fall in love with the first person you see. The latter is obviously a bad choice. You could fall in love with a woman on her deathbed, a psychopath, another man’s wife even. Whomever you lay your eyes on first, understand? That’s too risky, if you ask me. On the other hand, if I chose for you…would you really want someone else to choose the woman you will love?”

“If I fell in love with you, would you come by to see me sometime?”

She laughed and her glistening body trembled. “I frequent this area regularly, I love the reeds. They are a delicacy, especially at this time of day.”

“May I touch you?” he asked and reached closer, waiting for her reply.

She nodded. He placed his hand on her body below the head and let it glide slowly down toward the tail. It felt cool and smooth. He looked at his hand; it had a delicate shimmer all over it. “Star dust?”

She smiled and nodded again. “We always lived by the water. I loved fishing too. My mama taught me, and her father taught her.”

“Who did you leave behind when you became a fish?”

“Nobody.”

He touched her again. The temperature of her skin was warm in the sun. He rubbed it and looked at his hand again. There was more shimmer. He smelled it. Salt, water and reeds, and his skin.

“My parents are both gone, my wife is married unhappily, and the woman I loved once might have also become a fish, for all I know. Four people who would have cared are gone.” He was stroking her gently, always starting from the top. Her skin was slippery and his hand moved faster than he wanted. He pressed harder. The fish body was firm and his hand slipped again. There were many hues of red, orange and purple on her lively skin now; the sun was setting. “Do you have friends in the ocean? Lovers? Family?” He looked up at her strange eyes. She was looking back at him.

“It is a different world, Tihomir. Beautiful and different. You know, regardless of what you gain, something is always lost with change. Even when you get your foremost wish granted, you would lose a piece somewhere, where it matters to you. That is how order remains in balance. That is not bad, or good, it’s simply the way it is.”

“You mean, you can’t fall in love any more, Larissa?”

“You are not listening. There is love. And it is beautiful and different.”

“Will you live forever?”

“No! Actually, if you don’t come up with your wish soon I might die right here, tonight, on your hands.”

“Oh!” Tihomir stood up suddenly upset. “Please! Can I get you something? It doesn’t matter about my wish. I don’t have to have a wish. Things are so trivial, and I have already everything I need.”  He was clearly perturbed.

Larissa grinned at him. “That was a joke.”  Then she acquired a serious expression. “You are a kind man, Tihomir, with good heart. I agree, you already have everything you need. I should be going then. And you too, it is getting dark.”

He sat down again and resumed what he was doing previously. “I take it that was fish humor. If you are not in a hurry, I’d like to talk some more, please. There is nowhere I need to be, nobody to see… Tell me about the ocean.”

“Ocean is…it really is impossible to explain. Imagine something infinite, or nearly infinite but it feels endless, that is a forever changing collective world, and you are a part of it along with every other creature. You are where you want to be. There is big fish and little fish, endless varieties of color and shapes and you swim through water that seems to be you just turned inside out. Understand? No, I guess you can’t. People always try to project all-encompassing humanity as the highest ideal but end up being alone and apart, never belonging. In the ocean that doesn’t require an effort, you are a part of it. From beginning until end. You are at home.”

They were both silent. It was getting dark.

“I never belonged,” said Tihomir. “Now that I am thinking about it, it seems absurd. How could I not fit in here, born as one of the people? Where else would I fit? The curiosity of childhood was replaced by loneliness and introspection of adulthood. I question everything pretty much every day of my life, but now that you are here I can’t come up with a single wish. I’d love to be happy, but know better than to ask for that.”

“Some things are not to be wished for, they have to be earned.” Larissa said quietly.

There was silence again. Then Tihomir got to his feet, reached for Larissa with both arms, lifted her with some effort and walked slowly to the edge of the dock. “Do I wish it in my heart, or say loudly?”

“You have to speak up,” she said. 

Nobody was there to hear Tihomir’s wish. It was already dark and the nocturnal sounds soon took over. In the morning, the tiny holes in the concrete shimmered in some places; there was a fishing rod lying on the side, an empty water bottle, a cooler, turned over bucket, a pile of clothes and a pair of sandals which once belonged to a man.

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